The Big Sit! at the Asa Wright Nature Centre.
By Martyn Kenefick, author of Birds of Trinidad & Tobago
Once again it was time to participate in The Big Sit! at the Asa Wright Nature Centre verandah. Last October, the sometimes lonely vigil was maintained by Ann and myself, with occasional help from other members of staff. This year we were joined by Conservation Officer Kimberly and had periodic help from trail guides Mukesh, Barry, Brandon, and Elsa together with visitors Dan and Danielle from Massachusetts and not forgetting continual encouragement from the 26 member contingent of Saw Mill River Audubon Society, New York. We certainly were not lonely.
The rules of the event state that we remain within a 5-metre radius for a whole day and document every bird species seen or heard. Let’s be honest, we bent the rules just a little ― just by a few metres when stiffness of limb or mind-numbing boredom took over ― but it was always within the spirit of the game and within “our half” of the balcony.
Weather conditions were very different from 2014. We enjoyed, or rather endured, frequent rain showers for much of the day. It did not affect hummingbirds one iota; they bathed to their hearts’ content but it certainly put a bit of a dampener on soaring birds of prey and other landbirds who normally perch out in the open. Nevertheless, as the saying goes “the glass is half full, not half empty.” Jamoon, Trema, Miconia, and Guava trees were all laden with ripe fruit and the bench and sugar water feeders were full to the brim … and birds need to feed.
I arrived on the balcony just before 4.30am. The skies were clear; the air was still and the distant lights of Arima glowed from the bottom of the valley. Aside from insects of the night, the only sounds came from a pair of dueting Ferruginous Pygmy Owls. Suddenly, close to the bottom of the valley, I glimpsed a large, long tailed bird fly across, backlit by Arima. A split second view, binoculars still in my bag and at least 45 minutes before dawn. Was it a Common Potoo or perhaps just an insomniac Crested Oropendola? I had no idea but just hoped that I had now had my fill of unidentified birds for the day.
Great Kiskadees were just about the first to herald the break of day, quickly followed by a male Great Antshrike churring away as it hopped up some stone steps whilst a Northern Waterthrush bobbed along the pathway. All too soon there was activity all around me with White-necked Jacobins, White-chested Emeralds, Blue-chinned Sapphires, and Copper-rumped Hummingbirds all either taking their first drop of nectar from the blossoming Vervain and Sanchasia bushes or impatiently buzzing the sugar water feeders hoping that Brandon would hurry up with his filling duties. Bananaquits chattered away from all sides; a couple of House Wrens chirped from the roofs of nearby chalets; both Cocoa and Spectacled Thrushes gorged themselves on the ripened Jamoon fruit and distant Trinidad Motmot, Little Tinamou, and Bright-rumped Attila announced that the forest had awoken … and it was not yet 6.00am!
Once cut up slices of watermelon, papaya, and bananas had been placed on the bench feeders, the tanagers arrived in force and we quickly added numbers of Palm, Blue-gray, White-lined, and Silver-beaked Tanagers together with Green and Purple Honeycreepers to the proceedings. Beneath the feeders, pieces of bread had been deliberately dropped ― and the resident Gray-fronted Doves and Tropical Mockingbirds were quick to respond.
By now, Ann and Kimberly had joined me. A quick burst of sunshine encouraged Violaceous Euphonias to feed on abundant melastome fruit and both a female Tufted Coquette and a pair of Long-billed Starthroats to home in on the Vervain. Some 200 metres down the valley, a particularly tall Cyp tree atopped with mistletoe berries was always a good staging post for birds to perch up and survey their surroundings. Over the course of the next hour, it was visited by both male and female Bearded Bellbirds, a couple of Scaled Pigeons, and a Channel-billed Toucan whilst both Bay-headed and Turquoise Tanagers, Blue Dacnis, and a female Red-legged Honeycreeper made a bee-line for the berries.
High up in the sky, both Black and Turkey Vultures tested the slowly warming thermals; pairs of Orange-winged Parrots squawked overhead and the first Chaetura swifts swirled around far down the valley as if in the knowledge that the heavens were about to open. By 7.00am, the skies had clouded over. Little, Rufous-breasted, and Green Hermits flitted around in front of us and the gray morning was brightened by the arrival of not only of a pair of Yellow Orioles at the powder puff bush, but also by Guianan Trogons and Crested Oropendolas who had found the Jamoon. A Lineated Woodpecker briefly perched on a bare snag, a Golden-Olive Woodpecker flew across in front of us, and a pair of Barred Antshrikes “laughed” at the goings on from inside nearby shrubs. Time for breakfast.
Despite the near constant drizzle, an adult Gray-lined Hawk was chased the valley by a juvenile; a gliding raptor seen initially through the trees turned out to be a Zone-tailed Hawk; and the first of three White Hawks slowly soared up into view. By mid morning, things had definitely quieted down. Both Forest Elaenia and Ochre-bellied Flycatcher fed in the Trema trees; a pair of Black-tailed Tityras, known locally as Frog Birds, pursued each other through a Hog Plum tree; a female Green-backed Trogon appeared on the outside of the Jamoon; and the swifts slowly came closer and lower allowing us to identify both Band and Gray-rumped species.
Perhaps the surprise of the morning occurred just after 10.00am when a lone Lesser Swallow-tailed Swift dashed up the valley and over our heads, shortly followed by the first Southern Rough-winged Swallow criss-crossing the valley. The last new bird for the morning was a lone Boat-billed Flycatcher perched in a Guava tree. Lunchtime approached and there were still a number of common everyday birds of the Springhill Estate still to be found.
Meals were a staggered affair so that at least one of us remained on duty. It is quite normal for the middle of the day to be extremely “bird quiet” so we were pleasantly surprised when a light morph Short-tailed Hawk seized upon a break in the weather to drift over and the first Olive-sided Flycatcher of the season perched out at the top of the Cyp tree. Then both Plain Brown Woodcreeper and Rufous-browed Peppershrike called from the forest edge ― we were still in business.
Mid-afternoon and we still had not seen a single manakin. We all scoured every fruiting bush and tree. All of a sudden a female White-bearded Manakin flashed its orange legs from inside a near Trema tree and within minutes a handsome male Golden-headed Manakin, its head glowing in the murky afternoon light, appeared just behind. Our final new bird for the event was a Streaked Flycatcher which perched up in a clump of bamboo at 4.25pm … and then it was all over.
During The Big Sit! at the Asa Wright Nature Centre in October 2014 we had amassed a total of 70 species. This year…….69! Obviously we are restricted by The Big Sit! rules from seeing some of the regular birds found on the property. I’m sure the gardens surrounding the rear car park held Tropical Kingbirds and Long-bill Gnatwrens and that somewhere overhead or behind us a Common Black Hawk would have put in an appearance. Where was that Squirrel Cuckoo that normally flies out from the Hog Plum or the Collared Trogon that usually calls from the top of the Discovery Trail? Still there’s always next year!